Romans 11:32-33: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that they may have mercy on them all. Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”
In this article we start an important section of the New Testament. Having now traced Jesus’ life story through four Gospels and having observed the growth of the early church in the book of Acts, we now move to the letters of the apostle Paul. As we saw, the apostle Paul figures prominently in the second half of the book of Acts as Luke details Paul’s three missionary journeys and his final travel to Rome. Along the way, Paul was writing letters to the churches that he visited or planned to visit. The next thirteen books in the Bible are a collection of those letters.
It is appropriate that we start with Romans. While Romans was not the first letter that Paul wrote in terms of chronology (that honor, in my opinion, belongs to Galatians), in many ways it is the first in terms of importance and content. Many people consider Romans to be Paul’s masterpiece of Christian theology. In this letter, Paul lays out the contours of the gospel message he proclaims. But as we read this grand letter, we might wonder what prompted Paul to write such a book?
Part of the task of becoming a good student of the Bible is learning to discern why the books are written. This is always a challenge, because reading a New Testament letter is a lot like listening to one end of a phone conversation. But while we may not be able to know the precise details, we are able to discern a lot by reading the letter closely. In Romans, it appears that Paul is writing to various house congregations in Rome, split among Jewish and Gentile populations, who are having trouble getting along with one another. Just as many congregations today are separated according to class, ethnicity, and culture, so also was this a problem in the early first century church. This reality seems to be what motivated Paul to write to a church he did not found and had never visited.
What is Paul’s primary point in Romans? It is well stated in the verse I quoted above. God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy upon them all. When Paul says, “all people” in this context, he means “all different kinds of people,” ala, Jew and Gentile. All people are equally sinners before God and can only be saved by a sovereign act of grace. This is Paul’s primary theme in this letter. So how does it play out in the sixteen chapters of the letter? We can discern the following pattern.
Part one goes from chapter 1:1 to 3:20. After opening the letter with a thanksgiving for the Christians in Rome, and brief discussion of how he plans to go there one day, Paul opens the letter in 1:16-17 by stating that he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God to bring salvation to everyone who believes. The Jews have first crack at it because of their historical relationship with God, but it is equally for Gentile peoples as well. Having stated his thesis, he then goes on to demonstrate the problem. The reason the gospel exists and is God’s power to save people, is because there is a universal need for salvation. All people, Jew and Gentile alike, have fallen short of God’s glory and are under the just sentence of God’s wrath. Paul details in 1:18 and following how that wrath is now being made known in history. God is handing people over to their sin. All people, whether they lived under the guidance of God’s law as the Jews do, or live under the dictates of their own conscious, as the Gentiles do, are equally under God’s judgment because of their sin. Even though the Jews had the law as a guide, it really gave them no advantage because the law only revealed more clearly how sinful they were. The law only had the power to reveal sin, it did not have power to save people from sin. So, the Jews had no real advantage.
However, in part two (3:21-5:21), a solution is given to this terrible problem. The righteousness of God has now been made available to both Jews and Gentiles. This righteousness is made available on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, who gave his life as a sacrifice of atonement for the sin of all people. This gift of righteousness is known as “justification.” Paul goes on to demonstrate in chapter 4 that faith has always been the basis on which God justified people. Abraham is the forerunner of us all in this regard. Not only is he the father of all Israel, but he is the father of all who share his faith. While all people were condemned in the sin of Adam (Romans 5:12-21), salvation has now been made available to all people because of the obedience and sacrifice of Christ.
Part three (6:1-8:39) deepens this theme of salvation, but he now moves the discussion from justification to sanctification. If justification is how God accepts us as righteous in Christ, then sanctification is the process that God leads us through to actually make us righteous people. Chapter 6 focuses on the fact that now that we have died with Christ, we should actively put to death any remaining sin in our life. Chapter seven details what an intense struggle this is, as the flesh still fights against the Spirit, but chapter eight assures us of the victory. Paul says that there is no comparison between the suffering we are now enduring as we die to sin, and the glory that will be revealed to us in the new age. God guarantees full victory to those he has chosen in Christ. In him, we are more than conquerors.
Part four (chapters 9-11) is the most controversial and complicated part of the book. Having completed the main thrust of his argument in the first eight chapters, Paul now addresses the subject of God’s faithfulness to Israel. Is the fact that so much of Israel has fallen into apostasy a sign that God’s promises have failed? Paul will argue, of course, that this is not due to God’s failure. He will go on to demonstrate that there has always been a remnant chosen from among the Israelite people. Just being a physical descendant of Abraham did not guarantee anything. God has always sovereignly made choices among people, going back as far as Jacob and Esau. Israel has been given over to disobedience so that the Gentiles could be brought in. But before all is said and done, God plans to have a great harvest among the Jews.
The final section of the letter goes from chapter 12 to chapter 16. There Paul now gives practical application to the great theology he has given in the chapters 1-11. The Jews and Gentiles in Rome are called to renew their mind, to live a life of love, to obey the government, and to work out their relationship in unity with one another. This is the implications of the gospel. All are sinful and all need mercy. God does not favor one people over another but has opened the path of salvation to all in Christ.